“The true subject of poetry is the loss of the beloved,” claimed the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. In Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s powerful fourth collection, Seeing the Body, that beloved is her mother, to whom the book is dedicated. This mother (and her life, illness, death, and memory) becomes the powerful vortex where many other vital subjects converge. Daughterhood and family, race and racism, sex and sexism, identity, mortality, the urgent question of America—all are caught in—and revealed by—the slipstream powered by the mother’s death and absence. These chthonic poems are mighty with a spine-cracking grief, a shrewd and wild gaze, and a tidal relentlessness that ebbs and flows but does not let up until the poems finally burst, at the very last moment, into a kind of peace. This is an ambitious project undertaken by a multi-talented author (the poems are accompanied by Griffiths’s own photographs), beautifully produced by a major publisher. As both an intellectual and a physical object, the book has heft. It rewards deep reading, demands critical scrutiny, and largely emerges triumphant.
The very best poems in this collection hold their own against any I have read in the last decade; they are astonishing. For me, these poems are “Comedy,” “Cathedral of the Snake and Saint,” and “Myth.” These embody the three central themes of the collection: the living mother; the power of her death and the poet’s grief, which become spiritual or otherworldly forces; and the visceral experience of an America animated by hatred. These themes are not separate from one another. Part of the mother’s power seems to have been to anchor the speaker in the maelstrom of this hateful world, to teach her to live in it, to blunt its malevolence with her own loving presence. Without her, the poet is stripped bare and now absorbs the raw violence, not just of her own grief, but also of the nation and its history.
In “Comedy,” the living mother—revered and beloved, but recognizably earthbound and human—is most present, her humor and ethic palpable. Hospitalized and on morphine, she has dreamed of being in the morgue; the daughter, too, has had a dream of her mother’s disappearance. Yet they sit together conversing comfortably as if on a normal day, though the toast brought by the nurse is “thicker than my mother’s hand./That morphine is some powerful shit, my mother says [...] This is my new mother who has finally admitted fear/into the raw ward of her heart,” the poem goes on. “Looking/over the rim of her plastic cup, she shakes the world [...] Yeah don’t go & write about me like that,/she says. I already know you will.” The affection, intimacy, and poetic skillfulness here are exceptional and deeply satisfying.
For me, the most moving, accomplished, and transformative poem in the book is “Cathedral of the Snake and Saint,” which takes place during a memorial for Maya Angelou. Previously having avoided church after the death of her mother (“I wasn’t civil/yet”) the speaker is overwhelmed by the ritual of celebration and grief, the attendants (“There was Toni/waving in a fine straw hat. & Nikki Giovanni & Hillary Clinton”) and then, among the communal singing, “I was shouting so wild and sad [...] that the zipper of my dress snapped.” In this moment, the experience intensifies again, as the speaker, now literally as well as spiritually exposed, having split “My good black dress with its snakeskin/panel,” the same dress “I’d worn to my mother’s funeral,” considers “what would happen/if, upon my belly, I began to hiss, with my mournful fangs,” and contemplates “stepp[ing] right out of/the dead dress and why not?” Illuminating the unadorned authenticity of love and grief, the poem reveals “Everything ugly & sweet in me/exposed to the heavens.” It feels wild and transcendent, but the poem is tightly controlled, moving nimbly line to line.
The grief at the loss of the mother is not separate from that provoked by the violence, racism, and smashed promises of America. In “Myth,” Griffiths connects the murder of Michael Brown to the death of her mother through a recurring nightmare of trying to save him. “America aimed her myth at Mike Brown,” the poem asserts. “We are dying in the name of a love/so evil it can’t kill us quickly enough.” But “too alive/to let their good myth put its hands/on me & mine,” the speaker interrogates the origin of that myth to find “the world where a black boy is/not a wound shivering in his blue skin/beneath a bullet’s moonlight,” asking “Where is the story that began in the ditch/of a religion, in the hull of a need/so sick & swollen it floated my people/across its terrible waves?” The voice that poses these questions is urgent, oracular, timely.
Other strong poems (notably “Heart of Darkness,” “Aubade to Langston,” “Good Mother,” “Chosen Family,” and “Good Death”) pick up these interconnected themes. In “House,” “Good Food” and “Work,” it is our pleasure to encounter the living mother. In “Whipping Tree,” “The south stands in the throat of a tree,” and the poet is “aware that we are living in the middle/ring of terrorism.” The intimacy of racist and gendered violence, its life and afterlife within the body, that same body’s capacity and need for pleasure and care—these themes play themselves through the collection, in variations and repetitions like a fugue, and the photographs echo them.
The best poems here are deeply impressive, the very best among them truly extraordinary, but some of the more uneven poems nonetheless boast great and vividly original lines. “There are calla lilies, long upon the mute lid/of my mother’s name,” for example, or, in a poem about the mother’s dying: “she was/leaving the empire of her body;” in one addressing a mirror: “You immaculate bitch of glass, I’m doing all/the digging.” The poem “Elegy, Surrounded,” ends with the complex image of “a small girl kneeling in a puddle/& looking at her face for the first time,/her fingers gripping the loud,/wet rim of the universe.” Seeing the Body quite rightly looks askance at any idea that it should be smaller, quieter, more polite; that it should take up less space in any way. And I would not make such a suggestion. Yet more rigor and strictness might have given the collection even more velocity, might have allowed the poems to beam their dark light with even greater puissance. I sometimes wished that more rigorous editing had allowed a great stanza to stand out more boldly, or a great run of lines to shine on their own. The poem “Hunger,” which immediately follows the astounding “Cathedral of the Snake and Saint,” takes up some of the same threads and images—ferocious grief that transforms the speaker into a non-human animal—but, as a more minor poem, it suffers by comparison, as does a second poem entitled “Myth,” less strong than the one quoted above. Similarly, the beautiful “Another Age” seems to close powerfully at the bottom of its first page, but goes on for another six lines, ending up somewhere not quite so striking. It might have been possible to cut more vivid moments loose to stand out from the excess of what might have been earlier, more voluminous drafts.
And yet, excess, the sometimes decadent excess of enormous grief, is at the heart of this collection: the loss of the mother, the crushing weight of racism, the unredeemed dream of America, the violent disappointments of womanhood, and on and on. And Griffiths owns this excess, even when it might signal self-indulgence or failure. She apologizes when, as in the poem, “Husband,” it ends up hurting others: “When my mother died I could not confess/I was neither a daughter nor a wife [...] Forgive/my estranged affair with the present. I’m consumed/with common tenses & my mother’s visitations.” But she does not flinch from it or become embarrassed by it. It is the rawness of this excess that, in the end, unlocks the collection, even as it sometimes undermines or unsteadies its foundations. Indeed, the shakiness inherent in any foundation—revealed by the loss of the mother—is part of what this book illuminates with a light both harsh and holy. Seeing the Body is a collection of power, heavy with import, vivid with image and sound, a serious and significant work.
Katherine Hollander is a poet and historian. Her first collection of poems, My German Dictionary (Waywiser Press), won the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize in 2019. Her poetry, criticism, and historical scholarship has been published in Literary Imagination, Hunger Mountain, New German Critique, and elsewhere. Hollander is a reader for Sugar House Review and the editor of a new edition of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, forthcoming from Bloomsbury/Methuen.